In the grounds of the Deoksugung in downtown Seoul is an outpost of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Maybe your average sightseer interested in palace architecture is not interested in popping in to see some paintings. But the exhibition currently showing is well worth a visit.
The exhibition showcases two artists — one Japanese, one Korean — and explores the similarities and differences between them. Inevitably there is a large number of parallels to be drawn as the Korean — Choi Young-rim (최영림) (1916-1985) — was a pupil of the Japanese — Munakata Shiko (1903-1975) — and the two seemed to maintain a friendship over the years: on display at the exhibition is some of the correspondence between the two.
Choi was born in Pyongyang. While he is generally known for his post-war output, he was also active in the 1930s and early 40s. He was a member of Group Jooho, which held and annual exhibition in Pyongyang from 1940 until liberation, and included the now highly collectible Park Soo-keun (1914-1965). These group shows commemorated the death of woodblock artist Choi Ji-won in 1940. It was through Choi Ji-won that Choi Young-rim met Munakata Shiko in 1935, and went to study with him in Tokyo in the late 1930s.
Choi Young-rim came south during the Korean war. While he continued to develop work in woodblock, for which his mentor Munakata Shiko was so famous, he also began to focus more on painting. None of the pre-liberation output of Choi survives, and the exhibition at the Deoksugung starts with his 1950s output. The initial room indicates that Choi had yet settled down into a recognisable style. But soon comes the exploration of “earth painting”. The colours of these oils are various shades of ochre, and the rough, grainy texture of the paint on the canvas looks as if the work has been painted on sand or coarse concrete. According to Kim Youngna1, Choi was
fascinated by surface texture[. He] primed his canvases with an earth-colored mixture of soil and glue or covered them with rough cloth, before painting in oil on it.
The subject matter of these more mature works are Buddhist in nature (Mercy of Buddha, above), or depicting Korean folk tales such as Shimchong-ga (top), or robustly rounded and primitive studies of the female form. Choi continued in this style, and, at least on the evidence of this retrospective, was not pushed off course by some of the more abstract counter-currents of the informel movement.
While much of the subject matter of the works are pastoral, folk or religious, one painting stands out: Choi’s Korean War (1974) which has a somewhat chaotic composition slightly reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica and while much of the work is in Choi’s trademark earthy colours, the soldier is in an unnatural purple.
The exhibition at the Deoksu Palace continues until 30 March. The ground floor is devoted to the Korean paintings, while upstairs houses Munakata Shiko’s work. The exhibition is well worth a detour.
- Deoksu Palace Art Museum website (Korean only and, like many Korean websites, designed to reinforce the Microsoft stranglehold)
- Deoksugung branch page of National Museum of Contemporary Art website (in English, but unfortunately the website has no easily findable information about exhibitions at the Deoksu museum)
- 20th Century Korean Art, Lawrence King, 2005, p180